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Air Force gunship training leaving Panhandle, in part because of crowded airspace

Officials say they prefer Kirtland Air Force Base to Hurlburt Field Special Operations Base east of Pensacola.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Air Force will move training for one of its gunships from Hurlburt Field Special Operations Base east of Pensacola to a base in New Mexico.

Officials say Kirtland Air Force Base is their preferred site for the relocation of the Ghostrider Formal Training Unit, flying AC-130J aircraft, because of factors including the increasingly crowded airspace around Hurlburt.

Seven aircraft and 372 positions would go to Kirtland as part of the move, the Air Force said.

The first AC-130J Ghostrider arrived at Hurlburt — 35 miles east of Pensacola and home of the Air Force Special Operations Command — in July 2015 after testing at nearby Eglin Air Force Base.

Col. Mike Curry said during a recent news conference that other factors in the relocation involve the similarities between New Mexico’s terrain and the geography of many of the places where the aircraft is deployed, and the proximity to two training ranges — the Melrose Air Force Range and White Sands Missile Range.

In addition, the 58th Special Operations Wing at Kirtland already does training in variations of special operations C-130J aircraft that are similar to the AC-130J gunships.

The AC-130J aircraft provides close air support, air interdiction and armed reconnaissance in support of special operations around the world. The latest version of the fixed-wing aircraft marks the fourth generation, with the first being used in the Vietnam War.

Each of the highly modified AC-130J aircraft was built at a cost of about $115 million. The gunships have engines that allow it to stay in the air longer without refueling. They also have the ability to fly higher, carry more weight and engage targets from longer distances, Curry said.

The gunships carry small-diameter bombs and air-to-ground Hellfire missiles, as well as 30- and 105-millimeter cannons guided by precision laser and GPS systems.

Sherman McCorkle, founder of the Kirtland Partnership Committee, a community-based advocacy organization that highlights and supports the work done at the base, told the Albuquerque Journal that Kirtland for more than three decades has provided pilot training opportunities that are “unmatched anywhere else in the U.S.”

More than 10,000 aircrew members are trained annually at the 58th wing, base officials said.